Some of the most famous vintage military watches are a group of timepieces affectionately known as the “The Dirty Dozen” — nicknamed after the 1967 World War II film, but with an origin story that pre-dates the movie by over two decades. Let’s explore the history, design, and collectability of these WWII-era military watches.
Due to the need for precise timekeeping during combat, the history of horology is inextricably linked to warfare. World War II was a particularly significant period for watchmakers everywhere as armed forces across the globe required large numbers of watches for their soldiers, combat divers, sailors, and airmen.
During the early years of WWII, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued ATP (Army Trade Pattern) watches, which were effectively civilian Swiss-made watches furnished with military-specification dials, special engravings, and custom serial numbers. However, at a certain point, the MoD decided that a better strategy would be to order custom military watches built to their exacting specifications. The new MoD standard was given the aptly utilitarian name “W.W.W.,” which stands for “Watch, Wristlet, Waterproof.”
To ensure timekeeping accuracy, reliability, and precision, these watches had to be powered by chronometer-rated hand-wound movements. Furthermore, given their future destiny in combat, the W.W.W. stainless steel watches had to be waterproof, shockproof, dustproof, and fitted with a shatterproof crystal. For optimal legibility, the MoD required the watches to have black dials with Arabic numerals, along with luminescent hands and hour markers. Due to the period when these watches were made, radium was used for the luminous material.
The casebacks of the watches reveal some important engravings, which include the letters “W.W.W.,” a military serial number, a standard serial number, and the broad arrow symbol to identify the watch as the property of Her Majesty’s Government. The same broad arrow marking was also imprinted on the dials, right below the name of the watchmaker that supplied the watch.
The twelve watch brands that the MoD eventually approved to produce the W.W.W. watches were Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. The only British brand among these twelve was Vertex (using Swiss movements). The rest were Swiss watchmakers. While some of these brands remain strong players in the watch business today, others unfortunately disappeared decades ago.
The production capabilities of the 12 companies varied greatly, so each manufacturer was instructed to make and deliver as many as possible for the war effort. It’s estimated that about 150,000 of these W.W.W. watches were received by the MoD in 1945. According to the book British Military Timepieces by Konrad Knirim, these are the estimated production numbers by each watch manufacturer:
Interestingly, the watches were delivered in the months following Victory in Europe Day (May 8, 1945). Therefore, many of the timepieces never actually made it onto the battlefield. Some of the surplus watches were later renumbered and sold to other armed forces, such as the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army and the Army of the Republic of Indonesia.
Somewhere along the way, collectors coined the nickname “The Dirty Dozen” for these 12 MoD-issued W.W.W. watches, taken from the classic movie about a band of criminals recruited for an important mission as D-Day approaches.
For many Dirty Dozen watch collectors, the ultimate mission is to assemble a complete set of the twelve. This is no easy feat. Aside from the fact that Grana only made anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 units, it’s been rumoured that many remaining W.W.W. watches were destroyed in the 1970s due to the presence of radioactive radium on the dial. And because all W.W.W. watches were maintained and repaired by the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers, parts were replaced with what was available without much regard to maintaining originality — resulting in many examples with mismatching components.
Although not entirely mission impossible, it’s estimated that fewer than 20 collectors own a complete set of all-original or close-to-all-original Dirty Dozen watches. However, if your ambitions are more modest and just owning one will do, that’ll be significantly easier. Prices vary depending on brand name and original quantities produced but expect to pay anywhere from $1,500 to more than $7,000 for an original “Dirty Dozen” W.W.W. military watch from the mid-1940s.